Newton, Douglas: Hell-Bent: Australia’s Leap into the Great War

Douglas Newton

Hell-Bent: Australia’s Leap into the Great War, Scribe, Brunswick, Vic, 2014

Most histories of Australia’s Great War rush their readers into the trenches. This history is very different. For the first time, it examines events closely, even hour-by-hour, in both Britain and Australia during the last days of peace in July–August 1914.

London’s choice for war was a very close-run thing. At the height of the diplomatic crisis leading to war, it looked very much like Britain would choose neutrality. Only very late in the evening of Tuesday 4 August did a small clique in the British cabinet finally engineer a declaration of war against Germany.

Meanwhile, Australia’s political leaders, deep in the throes of a federal election campaign, competed with each other in a love-of-empire auction. They leapt ahead of events in London. At the height of the diplomatic crisis, they offered to transfer the brand-new Royal Australian Navy to the British Admiralty. Most importantly, on Monday 3 August, an inner group of the Australian cabinet, egged on by the governor-general, offered an expeditionary force of 20,000 men, to anywhere, for any objective, under British command, and with the whole cost to be borne by Australia — some forty hours before the British cabinet made up its mind.

Australia’s leaders thereby lost the chance to set limits, to weigh objectives, or to insist upon consultation. They needlessly exposed Australian soldiers and their families to the full horror of the mechanised slaughter that was to come. They were hell-bent — and they got there. (blurb)

The book has an extensive bibliography of archives used and detailed notes including references to secondary sources. There is a full synopsis of the book on the author’s webpage. The book was launched in Canberra by Frank Bongiorno, reviewed in The Saturday Paper and by Christopher Clark in The Guardian. Rod Olsen reviews the book for Honest History. There is a podcast of Newton and Clark talking about the book. Newton talks on the ABC about his book with a full transcript. And again. He talks on public radio (mark 4.30-7.30). Covering the same issues as Newton but from a different perspective is a 2011 review article by John A. Moses (pdf supplied by author).

Other reviews of the book and of the author’s companion volume, The Darkest Days: The Truth Behind Britain’s Rush to War 1914, are accessible here. A joint review with Beaumont’s Broken Nation.

Newton asks two crucial questions at the very end of his Introduction to Hell-Bent.

It is for Australians to decide how we shall memorialise such a calamity. Shall it be in an inward-looking spirit, seeking national vindication, adding to the store of national self-approval, soaking up pride in our eagerness to send military aid to Britain as if it were a chest-swelling moment? Or is it more fitting that the moment is approached in a mood of simple respect, mourning, and infinite regret?

Then, at the very end of the book, Newton makes a crucial point about then and now.

Whatever cult of the fallen was invented afterwards to invoke the Australian people’s perpetual care for the Anzacs in death, their neglect of them in life was starkly revealed in the plunge into war in July– August 1914. Constantly confronted, as Australians may be, with a pantheon of heroes, it is loyalty to those in the pantheon that should inspire them to think critically about the nation’s descent into war — in the past, in the present, and in the future. Certainly, the offer of an expeditionary force in 1914 was a dangerous precedent for this war, and for others to come. Australians went, freefalling, into a protracted horror, a common calamity. They leapt for the sake of the British Empire, the ruling light of the galaxy that was to be a dead star inside fifty years.

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